Michelle Ng, founder of Vancouver Foodie Tours, shares her favorite restaurants and must-taste dishes from the seaport city.
As an immigrant who moved from Hong Kong to Vancouver at eight years old, Michelle Ng quickly developed an appreciation for the way mealtimes can turn strangers into friends – especially in Vancouver, one of Canada’s most multicultural cities, with a food scene that reflects its diversity.
“I’ve always loved the magic that happens when people sit down together for a meal, how it helps break down any barriers that existed between them,” she says.
Ng founded Vancouver Foodie Tours in 2010 as a way to showcase her city and the eclectic mix of restaurants and dishes that brought her joy. On any menu, she discovered, there are two or three items that the chef is most proud of, and her aim is to share that knowledge with locals and visitors alike.
Vancouver’s chefs are spoiled when it comes to the abundance of fresh, local ingredients available – in particular, the unparalleled access to seafood thanks to the city’s coastal location. Visit in the spring, says Ng, and you’re likely to find seasonal spot prawn on the menu, a local crustacean so “ridiculously sweet and crunchy” that it needs little seasoning or cooking.
Aside from sampling as much seafood as possible during your visit, Ng’s other recommendation is to eat your fill of Chinese cuisine. Richmond, just south of Vancouver proper, is renowned for its dim sum spots and noodle joints. It’s something Ng’s relatives comment on when they stay with her, saying Vancouver has the best Chinese food outside of China.
We asked Ng to provide a selection of her top tour stops and favorite restaurants, complete with the dishes you’ll be pining for long after returning home.
As one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, Boulevard regularly cleans up at hospitality awards ceremonies. The menu of high-end seafood dishes was masterminded by executive chef Alex Chen, who borrows from international cuisines to create innovative flavor combinations, like kanpachi in a fish bone vinaigrette, served with kohlrabi, compressed cucumber, oozing ramen quail egg and a sprinkling of mustard seeds. Ng recommends ordering the seafood tower for four, for two. “Have that be your entrée,” she says. “It’s definitely enough food and it gives you more bang for your buck. This is a fine-dining establishment after all, and dishes are on the expensive side.”
Get a seat at the sushi bar when you visit Miku, so you can watch the chefs at work. This Japanese restaurant is best known for its aburi – lightly flame-seared sushi that’s deliciously caramelized and smoky. “Everybody needs to try their salmon oishi sushi signature, with jalapeño and special Miku sauce,” says Ng. She also names the matcha ice cream as a menu go-to, noting, “It isn’t sweet green tea like you’d get at high-volume commercial kitchens. It’s made with high-quality, vibrant matcha powder, and it’s amazing.”
Eat hyperlocal at Edible Canada, where you can try traditional Canadian dishes | Courtesy of Edible Canada
Edible Canada bills itself as an ambassador of Canadian cuisine, fare they define as made with “local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients in the hands of many cultures.” The company’s Vancouver bistro is situated on the Granville Island peninsula, and it specializes in farm-to-table dishes that feel healthy but hearty. Ng’s go-to here is the famous duck poutine – chunky fries smothered in duck confit and Quebec cheese curds with a crisp-edged duck egg on top. Add the foie gras and sweet tree birch syrup to make the meal extra-indulgent and even more Canadian.
Arrive a little before Medina opens its doors or be prepared for a long wait – this is perhaps the most popular brunch spot in the city. The restaurant serves Mediterranean favorites like tagines, couscous and spicy lamb meatballs, and makes them brunch-appropriate by adding eggs, avocado and sides of golden, griddled bread. The move here is to order the paella, according to Ng – flavorful rice chock-full of chorizo and roasted vegetables, sprinkled with Grana Padano and topped with a single sunny-side egg.
Dim sum fans should make a reservation at Kirin, a restaurant renowned for its award-winning dumplings. Ng recommends the chicken abalone steamed bun and the pork siu mai, which is made with hand-chopped meat. Preparing the pork this way is rare, she says, and gives it a distinct “contrasting crunchy and succulent texture” that stands out – even in a city that excels at Chinese cuisine.
Nicli Pizzeria carries the seal of approval from the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana – an association authorized by the Italian government, which provides special designation to any pizzeria that embodies traditional Neapolitan cooking techniques. In other words, Nicili’s pizza is the real deal. Toppings range from the very traditional to the unusual and imaginative, like the ones on Il Bastardo, which comes dripping in bacon jam and Calabrian chili honey. The insider tip from Ng is to flip the menu – on the back you’ll find a secret pizza that is a favorite among locals.
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The winner of several Vancouver restaurant awards in the category of best Southeast Asian dining, Phnom Penh fuses Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisines with addictive results. Start with the deep-fried chicken wings and spicy garlic squid, then move on to the beef carpaccio, which comes with a fresh and fragrant dressing of green onions, cilantro, vinegar and soy sauce. You can make reservations for eight people or more in advance, otherwise just turn up, put your name down and grab a craft beer from nearby London Pub. You might be waiting a while.
Make a reservation a month in advance to try the tasting menu at AnnaLena, an upscale spot with the aesthetic of a trendy art gallery. Chef Michael Robbins is a born and bred Vancouverite who puts a creative spin on Pacific Northwest dishes. If you’re going à la carte, Ng’s recommendations are the oysters topped with apple, jalapeño and frozen, shaved foie gras; the torn bread with smoked beef tallow; and the mussels swimming in a broth of preserved lemon, garlic and thyme.
La Mezcaleria’s menu of Mexican dishes cherry-picked from all over the country will impress and satiate in equal measure. Ng loves the battered fish taco and the shareable queso fundido – a molten cheese fondue served from a volcanic stone bowl – washed down with the horchata cocktail (mezcal mixed with cinnamon and vanilla coconut milk). Tipples made with mezcal and rare tequilas are a specialty here, and bartenders put their own spin on classic recipes using savory touches and seasonal fruits.
Take your pick of your favorite kind of sweet donut at Lee’s Donuts, sold at Granville Island Public Market | Courtesy of Lee's Donuts
Lee’s Donuts was opened by Alan and Betty-Ann Lee back in 1979, and is still family-owned to this day. The shop whips up batches of traditional donuts – from old-fashioned glazed to rainbow chocolate sprinkled – and sells them at Granville Island Public Market, an artisanal haven full of Vancouver’s top food vendors. While not strictly a restaurant, on her tours Ng always pre-orders a melt-in-your-mouth batch of Lee’s honey-dip donuts as a sweet treat for the group.